Coles County Wild Things

Coles County Wild Things

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Outsmarting Squirrels at Birdfeeders

There is no question that gray tree squirrels are fascinating animals to watch. They make themselves available for observation like few other animals do, and their behaviors can be quite charming and amusing. Their antics entertain us as they chase each other around tree trunks and leap with reckless abandon from one branch to the next. What acrobats! These bushy tails become troublesome, however, when they help themselves to our backyard birdfeeders and become downright pesky about it.

Last month in this column I wrote about the nature of the beast, a little about squirrel biology and their natural habits. If you're going to go to war with squirrels, you'd better find out as much as possible about the "enemy"– after all, intelligence is 90% of any battle. Believe me, we need to learn all we can about them, because they know just about everything there is to know about the human who puts out the birdseed.

Squirrels know that when they hear the seed spill into the feeder, you're calling them to dinner. They know that if you erect a barrier around their favorite dining area, you're challenging them to a battle of wits. They realize that when you string a feeder along a thin wire between two trees, you're inviting them to walk the tightrope and show off their acrobatic skills. They figure that if they gnaw through one feeder or knock it down, you'll soon replace it with another one. Squirrels know that no matter how often they eat clean through the supply of seed and nuts or peanut butter and suet, there's always going to be plenty more where that came from.

Why do these persistent little pests always seem to be winning? Well, it all boils down to one simple biological fact – squirrels have a lot more time to commit to the effort and a lot more motivation (their own survival) to keep up the fight.

And they don't care how long it takes.

The good news is we have several practical defenses at our disposal. Do these options involve outsmarting the furry ones? Sometimes, especially when it comes to using barriers. But there are other ways to solve the human-squirrel-birdfeeder problem that simply require a tolerant attitude on our part and figuring out ways to coexist peacefully with everyone.

A method often used to keep squirrels off of birdfeeders is to baffle them with devices above or below the feeders. These are usually metal or plastic disks or tubes that are mounted on the poles under the feeder to stop squirrels from climbing up. Plastic, dome-shaped baffles with steep slopes and a deep arch placed above the feeder can help keep squirrels from climbing down onto the feeder from above. Keep in mind that none of these will be effective unless the feeders are located at least ten feet away from trees and six feet off the ground to keep the critters from leaping over the baffles and directly onto the feeders. Unfortunately, these barriers can be bypassed simply with persistence and agility. And it's a pretty sure bet that at least one of them will keep trying and succeed.

Since squirrels are such champions at stealing seed, there has developed quite a competitive industry around designing squirrel-proof birdfeeders. But since this species has had thousands of years to perfect its skills through evolution and natural selection, many bird-lovers will tell you from experience that most of these designs just don't work. Finding new food supplies and using uncanny athletic abilities to reach them is a major squirrel advantage. Humans just haven't figured out yet how to deal with that much talent.

Always on the lookout for tried and true squirrel-busting methods, I've come across some pretty promising ideas. These range from one homeowner's solution of setting up her feeders over a dense planting of rosebushes (squirrels don't like thorns), to plastic pop or water bottles strung along a wire from which the feeders hang suspended between two trees that are very far apart. The latter method was a pretty good squirrel-spoofer – the bottles spun so quickly when the squirrels ran out across them that the little rascals just tumbled right off. Instead of bottles, one could instead use 35 mm film containers and achieve the same results. Record albums (especially old 33 rpms) can be useful tools when the wire is strung through several albums on either side of the suspended feeder. If the feeder and wire are high enough, you should have a pretty successful barrier – the squirrels simply can't get over and around them. Of course, forget about ever playing those albums again.

There are other methods that work, but space here is limited and there simply isn't room to list them. I would, however, like to propose a solution that has worked for me that is based on a simple principle: If you can't beat 'em, feed them. That's right. I have a separate squirrel feeding station a good distance away from my birdfeeders that is stocked with cheap birdseed and lots of squirrel favorites: ears of corn stuck on nails and hung from branches, squirrel mix with shelled corn and sunflower seeds mixed with peanuts and seeds in a hanging platform tray (they love to sit in this while they eat), a suet feeder containing a nutty mix that squirrels love. Weaning them away from my birdfeeders wasn't that hard – I just made sure I invested in a couple of tall, cylindrical squirrel-resistant feeders for my bird station, and the squirrels have decided to leave the birdfeeders alone. I also switched to safflower seeds (the squirrels don't like these) in the birds' hanging platform tray. The squirrels actually turn tail and scamper away when they discover what's waiting for them there. The birds seem perfectly happy with the safflower seeds and now can enjoy them in peace.

My husband and I are enjoying keeping our squirrel neighbors happy. The birds have also quickly discovered the squirrel-feeding station and are enjoying what it has to offer. I'm afraid, however, that this presents a new set of problems – I recently saw a shadowy figure hunched over the squirrel feeder in the moonlight and silhouetted against the snow. A hungry raccoon was helping itself to the corn mix. And just this morning, my husband woke me up very early to observe four deer out there, browsing. Just when you think you've found a peaceful solution, Mother Nature stages a comeback.

For those of you who really don't like squirrels around and just want to get rid of them once and for all, the war rages on. There is one more thing, however, that I might suggest: Dig a moat around your feeder, and fill it with piranha. That just might be your best bet.

I wish you luck.

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